UK 2004 cover

Jonathan Coe writes:

“The circumstances which led me to write this book are fully explained in the introduction. Essentially, I was fascinated by the figure of BS Johnson ever since I first glimpsed him – when I was thirteen years old – presenting a television film he had made just two or three weeks before he took his own life in October 1973. I subsequently discovered his novels when I was a postgrad student at Warwick University, and realised at once that I had chanced upon a writer who was going to be immensely important to me.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Johnson was a supremely inventive and innovative British writer who published seven novels between 1963-1973. I was commissioned to write his biography in 1995, by Peter Straus who was then an editor at Picador. We secured the co-operation of Johnson's estate, and his widow Virginia generously allowed me complete access to his massive archive of letters, diaries, manuscripts and notebooks, which had been sitting unread at her house for more than twenty years.

Because Johnson had a relatively short life (he committed suicide at the age of 40), I naively thought that writing his biography would be a simple task, one which could be completed in a couple of years and slotted in comfortably between periods of work on The Rotters' Club. Instead, it proved a long and demanding project. I quickly realised that Johnson – a big man, in both physique and personality – had squeezed a huge amount of living into his forty years; more than many people manage in twice that time. It soon became apparent too, that it wasn't enough to simply sketch the outline of his life and work: the very nature of his writing meant that this would have to be an ambitious and wide-ranging book, addressing the fundamental motives and contradictions at the heart of all literary activity.

Perhaps I need to say no more here, especially as I've already written at greater length about the background to my work on B S Johnson in this article for the Guardian.

I would like, though, to pay tribute to those European publishers who've taken the brave decision to translate this long biography of a writer who is still little-known outside his own country: viz., Querido in Holland, and Quidam Editeur in France. In fact Pascal Arnaud, the proprietor of Quidam, has been a magnificent evangelist for BS Johnson altogether, having published five of his novels in France and worked tirelessly to find them the widest possible readership.

An Italian translation of the book is also forthcoming from Feltrinelli, but no date has been set for publication yet.

Incidentally, the TV film which sparked my youthful fascination for BS Johnson was called Fat Man On A Beach. It has been uploaded to YouTube and can be seen here.”

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jonathan coe portrait imageJonathan Coe was born on 19 August 1961 in Lickey, a suburb of south-west Birmingham. His father worked in the motor industry as a research physicist; his mother was a music and PE teacher.
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